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The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo, Japan.

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2019 Rugby World Cup

Like most others, the diagnosis of Younger Onset Alzheimer’s has had a ‘devastating and life changing effect’, on both me and my family. My initial diagnosis of Major Depression, left me with the understanding that, with treatment and time, I would eventually be able to return to the teaching profession, once my depression had lifted. However, with the diagnosis of Younger Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, I found that I was confronted with a ‘double whammy’. I now had an explanation why I had experienced memory, thinking and reasoning issues since April 2014. It also meant, that I had no prospect of ever returning to teaching - the one profession that I truly enjoyed.  The reality of this was gut wrenching. I could never allow a situation to occur, where, despite my circumstances, there was the slightest possibility that a student under my care could ever be injured, because I had simply forgotten to provide the correct instructions or due to my own professional incompetence. From my family’s perspective, it also meant that all of our dreams, aspirations and hopes for the future were now gone.

In the months that followed, the more and more I learnt about the progression of this neurological disease, it became increasingly obvious why there is so much ‘doom and gloom’ associated with this diagnosis. Given that there is no cure, the drugs that are available may only relieve some of the symptoms, I started to develop a ‘sense of hopelessness’ and ‘loss of purpose’ in my life. Not only was I starting to lack motivation and energy to complete even the simplest of tasks on a daily basis, I found myself withdrawing socially and no longer becoming involved in activities that I used to enjoy. Coupled with the need to get my financial affairs in order and the enormous emotional stress such a diagnosis places on you and your family, it is very easy to become apathetic towards one’s view of life. There is no doubt that I clearly fitted into this category.

Ever since I experienced an ‘immersion trip’ to Japan in 1985 with Joe and Erika Burke and a group Year 10 students, I have always held a hidden desire to return to this beautiful, majestic country. Therefore, I jumped at the chance of accompanying a group of close friends that were going to the 2019 World Rugby Cup, that was being held in Tokyo. As I saw this trip as my ‘last hoorah’, I felt it was fitting that my final trip overseas was to return to the same place, I had undergone my first ‘personal awakening’ some 35 years earlier – an experience that I consider pivotal in my decision to remain in teaching and not return to Pharmacy. My twin brother, Peter, accompanied me as my ‘primary carer’ on this trip because at this point in time only my direct family were aware of my diagnosis.

Japan has its own unique but mysterious character - which I believe you can experience by immersing yourself in its daily life, by walking through the many beautiful gardens, temples, shrines and narrow streets, strolling along the forested foreshores of the lakes at the bottom of Mt Fuji, by eating a range of freshly prepared authentic Japanese food and enjoying the electric buzz and sensory overload of Tokyo, or by just meeting the Japanese people who are so polite, friendly and respectful. Or perhaps it was just because we were all behaving like we were 21 again, laughing and having fun that made me realise that life was far too precious to be given up without a fight. My father had taught all of his children, that everyone stumbles in life. What separates you from the rest, is what you decide to do when you get up. So, I decided while I was recovering from the previous night’s festivities in the onsens of Tokyo, that I was going to make the life altering decision to fight this disease, with the goal of becoming the first survivor. 

Although I understood from the outset - that this goal was totally unrealistic, it didn’t seem to bother me in the slightest. I now had something to focus on and a purpose in my life. When I returned from Japan, I was a different person with a new mindset, as I had undergone my second ‘personal awakening’. For me, the notion of bringing ‘positivity’ back into my life was now starting to take over my thoughts and feelings. So, I decided to announce, as part of my 60th birthday speech on 7 October 2019, that I had been suffering from Major Depression since April 2014. As I have never been good at sharing bad news without any good news, I decided to leave out the bit about my diagnosis of Younger Onset Alzheimer’s Disease as I wanted time and space to work out how I was going to achieve my own ‘Mission Impossible’.

This is part of the text message that I sent to everyone who went on the 2019 Rugby  World Cup trip to Japan.

It was sent on Sunday 15 June, 2020.

"On Saturday night, after Simon (Rorky), Blakey, Dave Hall and Mick Harold had finished having their dinner at our restaurant with their wives/partners, I took the opportunity to share with them my current medical status, that being, in July last year I was diagnosed with Younger Onset Alzheimer’s disease - it appears the depressive episode I suffered in 2014 had now triggered this disease. ………..I viewed our rugby trip to Japan as my last trip overseas, but thanks to the great time I had and meeting all of you, it ignited something inside of me that told me giving up was not an option, so I embarked on a journey of survival. …………. I apologise for keeping you all in the dark but this was something I needed to do by myself. My thanks to you all as it was your friendship and camaraderie that allowed me to see another path to follow. Please keep this to yourselves for about another two weeks. Looks like I’m going to join you all in France in 2023. Cheers Bill"

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